From September 15th – 23rd, 2014, my wife and I along with two good friends (all experienced canoe trippers), completed a very enjoyable trip around the Bowron Lake Provincial Park Canoeing Circuit (the Chain). We had great weather and experienced all of the positive things that the Chain has to offer. We had nine days so took our time, took a rest day, had several enjoyable visits with other paddlers and did a great deal of exploring, particularly of some of the historic/cultural sites that are “off the beaten path”. This was my 25th complete circuit of the Chain…..I hope I have enough life left in me to do 25 more.
We were among the last registered paddlers for the season. When checking out at the end of the trip, I noticed that there was provision on the Check-Out Form for comments. Rather than respond at the time, I wanted to give this matter some more thought and so have chosen to forward my comments in this format. I am sending this to the (new) Park Operator and to the Williams Lake office of BC Parks. I will also be posting these comments on my website, http://www.celebratethebowron.com
Please accept that the intent in my writing is to reflect on all that was good about my recent experience on the Chain, but also to comment on some areas that if addressed, I believe would only ensure an even better/safer wilderness paddling experience.
Orientation Video/Orientation Talk
Two members of our group had not paddled the Chain before. We were told that viewing the orientation video is mandatory. This is a good policy and I know that many people arrive at the put-in full of excitement and lots of questions. There is a small but totally suitable and comfortable viewing area to accommodate group viewing and discussion of the interpretive video.
I had been told in 2013 that there was a volunteer group preparing an updated version of this video (a photograph of this group was on display on the wall of the Registration Centre), but on this trip, there was no updated video.
However, I have only recently discovered (March 2015) that on the Bowron Lake Provincial Park website http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/bowron_lk/ a new video has been posted for public viewing. It isn’t clear if this video, which was produced by BC Parks, is in fact the work of the volunteer group. In any event this video is a wonderful addition to the website, it offers a good visual introduction to the beauty of the Chain and the visual images complement the narration and the printed bullets that appear on the screen, offering practical and essential safety information. What is most important is that it may be pre-viewed (several times) before arrival. Our group was experienced and we were well prepared for our trip. This is not true of many paddlers arriving for this trip and I would suggest that Parks should look at all avenues to ensure that everyone preparing to paddle the Chain knows that it is essential that they take the matter of prior planning to heart. If this is not done in advance, once they arrive at the put in, it is too late. It is BC Parks’ role to ensure that the needed information is accessible, this web based video is excellent.
The new video on the Park website states that during the registration process, all registered paddlers must “view a mandatory orientation video.” I wonder if this is a reference to yet another new detailed video that will be shown at the time of registration? Hopefully it won’t be the woeful out-of-date video that we watched during our orientation. Paddlers arrive at the put-in with a whole range of paddling backgrounds, the orientation video is very important and the old one desperately needs (needed) to be updated!
The orientation talk given in conjunction with viewing the video is also very important, particularly as this is an opportunity to answer questions and to refer to details that might have specific relevance to what is happening on the Chain at that moment. This is an opportunity for the Park employee to provide an introduction to the Chain, it’s layout, the location of wood lots, hazards, water levels, issues with bears, the condition of portage trails and to give up-to-date information regarding numbers of paddlers on the Chain at that time. Our experience was quite positive, even though our orientation must have been one of the last offered at the end of a busy paddling season. It would have been understandable if our guide’s thoughts might have been elsewhere.
I would like to suggest that the orientation talk is an excellent opportunity to complement the information on the orientation video (assuming that if there is a “new” orientation video, that it will be the one now posted on the Park website). References could be made to paddling safety, essential equipment, packing for an extended paddling trip, portaging. They could also comment on reasonable schedules for completing the Chain, the availability and shared use of shelter cabins and cook shelters, emergency communication utilizing emergency phones but also other means like SPOT technology….all of these are essentially paddling or Park-specific topics. Topics related to wilderness camping including campfires and camp cooking, appropriate footwear, no trace camping, viewing and enjoying wildlife, etc. could also be covered. Finally it would be appropriate that the orientation included information and direction regarding canoe tripping etiquette and the need to protect, safeguard and respect all of the assets located around the Chain (cooking shelters, emergency shelter cabins, fire rings, outhouses, bear caches, directional signs etc.).
On a related note. The Provincial Park website does contain a significant amount of excellent (printed) information that ideally would complement the new video and the orientation talk. However, this information is “buried” deep in the website and I suspect that many paddlers do not know of its existence. It is true that near the top of the site is the heading “KNOW BEFORE YOU GO” with a link to the excellent “Pre-trip Information Booklet” however deeper into the site under the heading Nature And Culture is information regarding History, Cultural Heritage, Conservation and Wildlife. All of this information would add a great deal to the paddler’s appreciation and understanding of their experience on the Chain. There is another section on the website that contains even more excellent and very relevant information under the heading of Canoeing on the topics of Bowron Lake FAQ, Paddling & Camping Skills and Boating Code of Ethics. There is also an excellent section entitled Safety. It would be helpful (although probably too late) to have this information available in written format during the registration process. I would suggest that the website needs to be redone, making this very relevant information more clearly accessible. Once a registration to paddle the Chain has been completed, an email message could be sent to the registrant strongly emphasizing the importance of becoming familiar with all of the excellent information contained on the Park website. There are also excellent guide books that have been produced commercially and which could be mentioned as potential resources in the same email.
Park literature clearly promotes the use of wheeled carts to transport both canoes and kayaks over the portage trails. I fully support this initiative, I am quite certain that the use of carts has opened up the Bowron Chain to thousands of individuals who would not otherwise consider undertaking this very special wilderness paddling experience.
At this point, it is clearly indicated that there is a 28 kg/60 lb. limit to the amount of camping gear that may be transported in a canoe. I am not clear about the limit per kayak. It is emphasized (in several places on the Park website) that this weight limit is enforced to prevent undue damage to the portage trails. In reality we found that it is the trail not the loaded cart that is the hazard. Portions of the trails have deteriorated to the point that they are extremely dangerous and pose a threat not just to the integrity of carts, canoes and kayaks but also to personal safety. I am referring specifically to the first half of the Indianpoint Lake to Isaac Lake portage trail and the whole portage route along the Isaac River, especially the second and third trail portions of the Isaac River route. I do believe that it has reached a point where signs should be posted on these trail sections urging caution. Further, I feel that this matter should be addressed during the mandatory orientation session at the beginning of the trip, suggesting that paddlers could assist one another through these difficult sections and emphasizing the need for good, supportive footwear (not sandals, water shoes or flip flops).
It is also stated on the Park website that the weight limit is imposed to prevent damage to canoes as a result of them being overloaded and I believe that this is indeed the case that should be emphasized by Park staff when talking about the established weight limit. Of course it is also unwise to overload a canoe or kayak as it will make the journey over the portage trails quite onerous and the trip far less enjoyable.
Several of the portage trails, such as the Babcock Creek and other West Side Trails, are excellent. I am suggesting that a priority for maintaining and increasing Park usage is the significant upgrading of the damaged portions of the portage trail network. I believe that these upgrades should be a funding priority.
Weighing the gear that is to be transported in the canoes/kayaks for many paddlers represents a symbolic start to the much anticipated trip around the Chain. Planning for our trip had been ongoing for six months, our friends had travelled over 3,000 miles, for some of our group, this trip represented the culmination of a paddling dream they had been fostering for at least 25 years, we were all excited. At the end of the weigh in, the Park employee gave us the official tag to affix to the bow of our canoes…..finally we were ready to go.
Unfortunately the weigh-in was a farce. The antiquated weigh scale was broken, there were actually parts missing from the scale but we went through a pointless weigh-in ritual anyway. As indicated above, the logic of weighing specific items in order to protect the integrity of the trail doesn’t make sense. Common sense suggests that a heavy canoe/kayak will be hard to push/pull over the trail and there is a good chance that the watercraft and cart will sustain significant damage if it is overloaded. These facts alone will significantly impact the enjoyment of any trip around the Chain.
The suggestion that our canoes would be monitored by Park staff to ensure that they were not overloaded once out on the Chain proved to be unfounded. We did meet Park maintenance staff and they were friendly and businesslike, but they were pre-occupied with their tasks-at-hand, and did not monitor our canoes. (During past trips on the Chain, I have met Park Rangers who checked for the Park registration tag, but this was to confirm that I had in fact registered, they were not interested in what was being carried in the canoe).
I would suggest that Park officials need to re-think just how the matter of loaded canoes/kayaks is addressed with paddlers. A reasonable discussion could include:
–the fact that the first three portages on the complete circuit (as well as parts of the Isaac River trail) are essentially uphill and quite strenuous and that a heavy canoe/kayak will prove to be a real liability,
–the above-mentioned reasoning about potential damage to the canoe/kayak and carts due to overloading on a rough trail,
–a clear listing of the types of items that could appropriately be placed in a canoe/kayak
-(i.e. unwieldy lightweight items like paddles and poles,
-bulky/lightweight paddling-related items like seat and knee pads, PFD’s,
-unwieldy/small paddling items like painters, bailers, throw bags, smaller personal items like cameras, water bottles,
-possibly small day bags,
-bulky but lightweight camping items like sleeping pads (thermarest),
-rain gear or a warm jacket to be worn in the event of sudden weather changes,
It could be discussed that a trip around the Chain is not a race, that there are more than enough beautiful campsites,
that making more than one trip over any given portage will only enhance the trip and allow for a different kind of canoe tripping experience.
This is the kind of information that should be highlighted in the improved educational/orientation video and the educational literature, made clearly available on the Bowron Lake Provincial Park website and which would allow for more efficient prior planning and packing.
The established system of wood lots is a good one. We appreciated receiving a map of the Chain at the start of our journey that indicated the location of the current woodlots, and generally we were able to find firewood, even though we were travelling at the end of the season and could appreciate that the woodlots were probably quite depleted. This is really the only way to ensure that suitable firewood will be available once a paddler reaches his/her campsite as most suitable firewood in close proximity to the campsites is long gone.
We found that not all cut firewood was in fact dry enough for use. While I appreciate that there will be some green blowdown, it would only make sense to establish wood lots in areas where there are quantities of dry standing wood that can be bucked to length to be used as firewood. Such locations are not too difficult to find around the Chain.
The pine, spruce and fir trees around the Chain tend to be quite large. This means that splitting the rounds requires a fairly large axe (at least an axe with a longer handle). This should be advertised/specified to help paddlers properly prepare for their trip. A smaller axe or hatchet is essentially useless. This could be an issue, particularly when firewood is green and/or scarce and in extremely wet and cold conditions. There are circumstances that arise where a warm fire is an absolute necessity.
There are locations, particularly on the West Side of the Chain where large amounts of bug-killed pine have been bucked up for firewood (Sandy Lake, Unna Lake) but have been left scattered in the bushes and now are water-logged and essentially useless. In such situations it would be helpful to avoid such waste by piling the dry/cut firewood up off the ground in piles that will shed water.
It is suggested that deadfalls on portage trails should not be cut up into firewood lengths if the Park policy is to encourage campers to not overload their canoes/kayaks with excess weight. It is very tempting for campers to load such easily attainable wood into their canoe. Most such blowdowns are actually green wood and are essentially useless for firewood anyway.
Cook Shelters and Emergency Shelter Cabins
I am concerned that splitting firewood at the newly constructed cooking shelters could become an issue although this does not seem to have been the case up to the present time. I would suggest that an area be designated for splitting firewood in a safe location away from the shelter, that it be cordoned off and that it be clearly signed. The potential for significant damage to these new shelters if individuals chose to split firewood inside (on the new fir flooring) is significant. It would be a travesty to see the shelters damaged by thoughtless or poorly educated individuals.
Related to a discussion of firewood is the topic of wood heaters. The amount of abuse that they receive in the course of a season must be unbelievable. The warmth that they offer is certainly welcome…inevitably there is a group of people surrounding the wood heater inside the cook shelter. The wood heaters in the cook shelters were not replaced as the new shelters were built and they are starting to show their age and may pose a safety hazard. In fact those heaters have already been modified at least once to allow the stove pipe to run straight up from the heater. In their original design the stove pipe exited from the back of the heater requiring an elbow to direct the stove pipe upwards. This elbow was a “weak link” that frequently required replacement. I am pleased to see that good quality stainless steel chimney pipe is being used.
I believe that a wonderful job has been done to encourage paddlers to carve their initials on a designated sign board and to hang their carved paddles and artwork outside the shelters. There are also signs inside the shelters asking people not to deface the beautiful fir beams by carving, burning or other means. I am stating this because I am aware that the very first paddler completing the Chain in the 2013 season arrived at the then brand new Pat’s Point cook shelter (it had been completed the previous October). This person promptly chose the most prominent spot in the shelter and proceeded to carve and burn an extremely upsetting message into the beautiful fir beam. This mess is now covered by the sign (that was subsequently installed), asking paddlers not to deface the shelters.
The Pat’s Point cooking shelter was the first of the new post and beam structures to be constructed on the Chain. This building is now three years old. As is true of all log and timber frame structures, as the wood dries it shrinks and checking occurs. This is happening with the Pat’s Point cooking shelter. This raises the point that these new and very expensive structures require regular preservation/maintenance. (I have been told that the cost for the demolition of the old ranger cabin at Pat’s Point, installation of a proper foundation and construction of the new fixed roof duplex ranger cabin was approximately $229,000.00) All log/timber frame structures must be protected from the elements including moisture and the sun’s ultraviolet rays. In addition they must be protected from damage/infestation by small rodents and bugs. There must be an annual program of preventative maintenance of these beautiful structures. I hope that these new buildings were constructed with an annual maintenance contract in place. Unless this is the case, it will be only a matter of time that these worthy structures begin to deteriorate…..as has happened with all of the other log structures on the Chain.
We did not stay in any of the emergency shelter cabins on this trip, but they are invaluable, particularly during the shoulder seasons and on cold, wet days. Because they are essentially emergency cabins, it is important that the wood heaters inside these dwellings are functioning well.
The emergency phones located around the Chain provide both a very real as well as psychological reassurance that help is available if needed. The location of the “newest” radiophone on the Cariboo River is a good choice. It would appear that every year there are capsizes along that section of the river, which is a reflection of the fact that there are inexperienced paddlers travelling on the Chain.
I am overwhelmed by the fact that there are an ever-increasing number of personal emergency notification systems available and these are being used around the Chain. Satellite phones have been available for several years however their unwieldy size and relatively expensive cost made them unsuitable for a trip like a circuit of the Chain. Now however, a satellite phone called the SPOT Global Phone is not only affordable but its size makes it a very practical safety option for a wilderness canoe trip. Another option known as the SPOT Connect system provides a level of social connection far beyond what was imagined just a few years ago. Another system with many of these features is the In Reach Satellite Communicator.
It is my understanding that at the present time, Circuit paddlers are told that the Park radiophones are “turned off” at the end of the work day during the period of the year that the Park is “officially” open. I suspect that once the Park closes for the season, the radiophones are either removed or deactivated. It strikes me that as more and more paddlers have access to other communications systems, the Park is going to have to be able to respond to requests for information and services emanating from locations within the Park as well as from individuals and emergency services that have been contacted by people from within the Park at all hours of the night and day. Further, as more and more adventurers are looking for challenges and will visit the Chain during shoulder seasons and the winter when the Park is “closed”, it is most likely inevitable that there will be demands for a response as these new communications devices are used.
With one or two exceptions, there is not a “bad’ campsite on the Circuit….most of them are spectacular. The Park provides an incredible infrastructure that makes the canoe tripping wonderful. I hesitate to comment negatively however there is one significant issue with almost every campsite that I have used. The tent pads are in urgent need of an upgrade. Over time, the sand or other types of fill that has been used to fill in the actual tent pad itself (the area within the boundary of treated lumber) has either compacted or become displaced. The end result is that instead of providing a dry spot for pitching a tent, in the event of a moderate or heavy rainfall, the water collects within the perimeter of the tent pad, which then becomes a basin or reservoir, causing everything inside the tent to become soaked. The only way to prevent this from happening at the present time is to erect a tarpaulin over the whole tent pad and this is often not possible . I would suggest that it is time for Park maintenance staff to renew the tent pads themselves and to refill them with more sand or fill and to then pack down the new fill with a heavy roller.
Because we had the time, our little group was able to visit and enjoy a number of very special places located around the Chain, some of which are not well known but which could prove to offer even more reasons to want to experience this unequalled wilderness paddling destination. The fact is, the cultural and natural history around the Chain is rich and fascinating and needs to be documented and shared with all travellers on the Circuit. I would suggest that mention of the Bowron Lake Museum located just a few kilometres from the Park entrance at Bear River Mercantile should be made during the orientation session. This valuable collection of artefacts and photographs complements and expands the work that the Park has done in the area of presenting the Park’s cultural and natural history, in a truly wonderful manner.
-we were able to visit the Thompson Homestead high above Thompson Lake,
-the National Hiking Trail — Sentier Pedestre National that crosses the portage trail just before reaching Kibbee Lake and which reaches north to connect with the Goat River Trail which was the route taken by Walter Cheadle and Lord Milton as they travelled to Barkerville and beyond in 1863,
-the remains of the McCabe homestead on Indianpoint Lake,
-the canal that was blasted between Spectacle and Skoi Lakes to provide easier access into the heart of the Circuit in the event of a forest fire,
-the cedar forest at the north end of Sandy Lake, part of the unique Interior Rain Forest that runs down the spine of British Columbia,
-the Cariboo Falls on the Cariboo River which we experienced at dusk as we hiked from Unna Lake with the ghostly remains of -the bug killed pine trees silhouetted against the darkening sky making the whole setting look like a WWI battleground,
-we were touched by the memorial benches on Sandy Lake and near the take-out on Bowron Lake,
-the interpretive signs on Sandy, Unna and Babcock Lakes that tell the story of the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic are extremely well done and they set the whole sad story of the devastation into a much larger and encouraging context,
-The lovely sandy campground on Unna Lake which was the site of the Shake Shelters built by the hard rock miners from Wells during the 1940’s and 50’s as their summer mecca,
-the “straight-as-an-arrow” portage trails between Babcock, Skoi and Spectacle Lakes which once were the railbed for the wooden tramway that took loaded motorboats in to Unna Lake and beyond,
-the Bowron Marsh bursting with birdlife and moose (although we didn‘t see any on this trip),
-McLeary Lake, crystal clear and surrounded in a 360 degree circle by the snow capped Cariboo mountains,
-The 1926 Wendle cabin precariously perched over the bank of the Upper Bowron River, a relic from the era when big game hunting was “the thing” inside what is now the Park,
-the “Morris – Ohio – 1926 – Reed” etching located high on a rock face as we paddled out of Lanezi Lake into the Cariboo River….another reminder of the Circuit’s big game hunting era.
The Chain is unique in the world. As the Park’s planners, managers, custodians, caretakers, as wardens, rangers and contract staff you are in a very special position to ensure that only good things happen to this very special place. Much of what I have suggested is essentially just common sense which when mixed with good will, a sensitivity to all living things and a few relatively low cost measures will ensure that the Chain will continue to be safely experienced for generations.
I would welcome the opportunity to discuss my comments with you. This is respectfully submitted…
March 8, 2015